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Giants position preview: Lots of competition at linebacker

It looks like business as usual at linebacker for the Giants. But, is it?

San Francisco 49ers v New York Giants
Jasper Brinkley
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The New York Giants were finally going to do it. They were going to end a 32-year drought. After decades of using duct-tape and patching together a linebacking unit from spare parts unwanted by other NFL teams, the Giants were finally going to make linebacker a priority. They were finally going to select a linebacker in the first round of the NFL Draft.

As the draft drew near, pundits were increasingly certain Georgia linebacker Leonard Floyd was the guy the Giants wanted with the 10th overall pick. Through eight picks of the first round it looked like it could really happen. A chance to select Floyd was just two picks away. Then the Chicago Bears blew the linebacker dream to smithereens, trading up in front of the Giants to snatch Floyd.

That means it is business as usual for the Giants at linebacker. Piecing together a low-rent group out of middle-to late-round draft picks and journeymen castoffs. Does that mean another year of inadequate linebacker play? Of inability to cover the tight end? Inability to hold the line of scrimmage and make big run stops? Another year where it seems to be against NFL rules for Giants linebackers to charge across the line of scrimmage and make impact plays?

Maybe. Maybe not. The group might look like a collection of misfits, but there could actually be reason for optimism. Why? Let’s try to answer that as we continue our position previews leading up to the beginning of training camp.

The player who has teased us

That would be Devon Kennard. The 2014 fifth-round pick excited everyone during his rookie season. After finally getting healthy, Kennard played like something the Giants hadn’t seen in a long time — a young, impact linebacker. He had 4.5 sacks in a three-game stretch, won a Defensive Player of the Week honor for a two-sack, six tackle (two for loss) and a forced fumble effort against the Tennessee Titans and had former BBV analyst ‘Invictus” singing his praises, calling him “the future” at linebacker for Big Blue.

Stardom was surely right around the corner. Right? Instead, Kennard had a mostly invisible sophomore season. No sacks. No forced fumbles. Only two tackles for loss for the season, after registering 10 as a rookie. Seven games missed to injury, making that a troubling 11 games missed in two seasons.

What happened? Injuries? A generic sophomore slump? Was he dragged down by the ineptitude around him? More importantly, can Kennard still become the player we thought we saw at the end of the 2014 season?

Sure he can. Kennard is a 25-year-old who should be coming into his own. The Giants need him to rediscover the pass-rushing ability, along with the discipline, fundamentals and physicality that made him a force against the run, that he showed as a rookie.

If he can, he can give the Giants the play-making linebacker they have long needed. If not, the search will go on.

There are actually options

There are no All-Pros, no Pro Bowlers among the group of linebackers the Giants will bring to training camp. Perhaps, though, there will be strength in numbers.

At middle linebacker, the Giants have three veteran players who have all been NFL starters. Jasper Brinkley is a six-year veteran with 42 NFL starts, nine of those for the Giants a year ago. Kelvin Sheppard is a five-year veteran with 46 career starts, including 14 for the Miami Dolphins a season ago. Keenan Robinson is a four-year veteran of the NFC East with the Washington Redskins. He has 21 starts in 36 games. None will remind anyone of Luke Keuchly of the Carolina Panthers, but if you figure the MIKE will be largely a two-down, run-stopping position one of the three should be able to handle that. Brinkley probably has the early advantage because of the time he spent with the Giants last season, but entering camp there is no way to predict how this turns out.

At the WILL position, the Giants return the two players who split the job last year — Jonathan Casillas and J.T. Thomas. The job was supposed to belong to Thomas, but injuries slowed him and Casillas ended up playing 672 snaps to Thomas’s 401.

The Giants will hope that a healthy Thomas, signed last year to a three-year, $10 million deal, can return to the play-making form he showed in Jacksonville in 2014. He had a career-high 81 tackles for the Jaguars, with two interceptions, five passes defensed and two forced fumbles. He was not involved in a single turnover last season for the Giants. The seven games Casillas started last season were the most in his six-year career. Casillas had two sacks, five tackles for loss, an interception and five passes defensed in 2015. He is, at least, a reliable player who can be useful in coverage.

There is also Mark Herzlich, who year after year continues to find his way onto the roster and continues to contribute as a reserve linebacker and special teamer.

“There is a lot of competition there, so I think they are all getting better. All of the defensive spots, you find out most when you put the pads on and that one (linebacker) especially,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said during minicamp. “The guys that are going to play down hill, the guys that are going to play physical, the guys that are going to be playing with their pads and punching, pressing, so there is a little bit further to go there and that hasn’t really ironed itself out as far as who is playing where, who is starting, who is one and who is two and that is going to be an interesting battle in training camp.”

NFL: New York Giants-Rookie Minicamp
B.J. Goodson
William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

The MLB of the future?

Will that be B.J. Goodson, the team’s fourth-round pick in the draft? Goodson doesn’t figure to play a big role in 2016, but the trio of middle linebackers we already discussed are stop-gap options all on one-year deals. We might see much of Goodson this season, but the opportunity is there for him to prove to the Giants that he can be the full-time starter beginning in 2017. The last home grown player who showed that potential was Jonathan Goff, a 2008 fifth-round pick whose career was short-circuited by knee issues.

Roster projection

Devon Kennard, J.T. Thomas, Jonathan Casillas, B.J. Goodson, Jasper Brinkley, Keenan Robinson, Kelvin Sheppard

This is what I listed in my post-minicamp roster projection. I would call that a “soft” projection. I think it’s one linebacker too many, and you can never count Herzlich out. He always seems to find a way to stick around. I might make one more projection before camp starts, and we’ll see how this turns out.

Better than last year?

I will say yes. Partially because I expect more from Kennard, but also partially for a reason we haven’t discussed. The defensive line playing in front of this group is, on paper, far superior to the front four the Giants ran out there last year. Against the run, there should be more opportunities for the linebackers to stay clean and just go attack the ball. Against the pass, more pressure from the front four means less exposure.